We as a culture are in full swing of an epidemic of sleeplessness. We don’t sleep enough and we certainly don’t sleep well. A 2013 count shows almost 9 million Americans use prescription sleep aids and the number of prescriptions written continues to be on a steady rise. Add to that the increasing sales of over-the-counter medications and supplements for sleep – getting our zzz’s has become a holy grail.
That poor sleep is detrimental to our health is well established in the literature: lack of sleep stresses every system in the body, especially immune and neuro-endocrine, leaving us less resilient physically and psychologically.
There are many factors that can interfere with sleep, most commonly the overuse of caffeine, stimulant medications and alcoholic beverages. Medical conditions such as sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome are also disruptive to sleep.
Perhaps most pervasive is our cultural norm of burning the candle at both ends – overextended schedules, the ability to plug into technology 24/7 and the corollary expectation of being available 24/7 – we’ve created an environment that breeds sleep issues. Think about your own life – in the last week how many times has technology won out over sleep during prime-time evening hours? (Or maybe easier to answer the opposite question – how many times did sleep win over technology?)
The good news is that disrupted sleep patterns can be transformed by improving sleep hygiene – habits that are conducive for sleeping well. Evidence shows that using relaxation techniques before bed can actually improve sleep more than pharmaceutical sleep aids.
Yoga, as a restorative practice that lowers stress levels in the body, is a natural sleep remedy. And yoga goes beyond the symptoms of sleeplessness and helps to address the underlying causes – anxiety, overstress, adrenal fatigue.
Here are 5 ways to incorporate yoga into your own restful ritual. Give yourself an hour with all screens off to explore these restorative yoga postures and transition from the activities of the day to quieter, more relaxed place. For best results find a quiet place to practice, with soft lighting and free of distractions.
- Basic Relaxation Breath – sitting or lying comfortably, turn your attention to your breath. Notice the rise and fall of the body with each inhale and exhale. Even this basic awareness of the breath quiets the nervous system. Begin to gently lengthen your exhale without force or muscular effort. Simply allow your exhale to leave your body slowly. Repeat 10-20 times.
- Legs Up the Wall Pose (Viparita Karani) – 1 blanket or 1 pillow
Place a folded blanket or pillow on the floor a few inches away from a wall. Sit sideways on the blanket with the right side of your body against the wall and start to turn to the right. Walk your feet up the wall as you lower your shoulders down to the floor. The blanket can be under your hips or higher up, allowing your sit bones to drop down between the blanket and wall. Arms can rest by your side or reach overhead on the floor. If you find it takes effort to keep your legs still, use a strap, towel or men’s tie to bind shins at about hips’ distance apart from one another. Stay 5-15 mins, transition out of the pose the same way you went in.
- Supported Child’s Pose (Salamba Balasana) – 5 blankets
Fold all blankets into a rectangular shape and make two stacks of 3 and 2 blankets each. Place the taller stack on your mat or the floor and straddle the stack so that your knees, shins and tops of feet are all resting on the mat. Now place the shorter stack directly in front of your pelvis on top of the tall stack. From your hips fold forward. Let your arms relax down on either side of the blankets, turn your head to one side. Adjust blankets so that your entire front torso is equally and well supported. You can add or subtract blankets as needed. Settle in, surrender and soften. Rest here for about 3 minutes and turn head the other way, rest again. Come out of the pose slowly.
- Supported Reclining Butterfly Pose (Supta Bada Konasana) – 1 blanket and 2 pillows
Sitting upright on a blanket draw the soles of the feet together and allow your knees to fall open. Place a pillow under each thigh at a height that is comfortable – you’re going for relaxation, not intense stretch. Gently begin to lower the upper body down onto the blanket; you may need to adjust the pillows and your legs until you find your sweet spot. Place one hand on your belly and the other on your heart, close your eyes, soften the space between your eyebrows, release your jaw. Melt here for 5 – 10 mins.
- Yoga Nidra
Translated as ‘yogi sleep’ Yoga Nidra is a deeply relaxing and meditative practice. A teacher, virtual or in-person, guides a systematic rotation through the physical body; the student’s only task is to listen and experience awareness of the physical body. The best way to understand Yoga Nidra is to experience it – there are sample classes available online, and there are even specific Yoga Nidra practices for insomnia.
Restorative yoga as part of a night-time relaxation ritual decreases stress, unwinds the nervous system, nourishes the adrenals and creates space not only for improved sleep but ultimately for deep healing.
Incorporate sleep hygiene earlier in the day by getting in tune with nature. Whenever possible get outside for a brief walk in bright light, around mid-day – our body’s circadian rhythm is tuned to natural light so allow your internal clock to register when it’s high noon. Likewise, a walk outside at the time of dusk signals our brain that daytime is ebbing and prepares us for sleep to come.
Once evening has fallen, soften indoor lights – we are rhythmic beings so try to mimic the natural rhythm of day turning to night.
Pick a bedtime and stick with it.
Jill Hoffman, ND, RYT 200, is a naturopathic doctor with a private practice in Philadelphia, PA, where she is also a yoga teacher. In addition to her one-on-one work with patients, Dr. Hoffman promotes naturopathic medicine through public speaking events and runs group detoxification programs at an organic spa. Dr. Hoffman is a graduate of Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Arizona. Prior to receiving her naturopathic degree, she graduated with honors from Skidmore College. During her undergraduate work in French, she studied in West Africa and attended university in Paris where she first stepped on to a yoga mat over twenty years ago. Many classes later she became a certified yoga teacher through YogaWorks in Los Angeles. In addition, Dr. Hoffman has been privileged to study with gifted teachers around the world and continues to expand her knowledge of yoga in all its dimensions.
Part of Dr. Hoffman’s mission as a yoga teacher is to make yoga accessible to all, since the benefits of consistent practice offer something for everyone. She is known as an enthusiastic and challenging teacher with an emphasis on proper alignment and breath as the gateway to finding ease in postures. Mindfulness and compassion are at the heart of her teaching, and she encourages students to integrate both as part of their own daily practice, on and off the mat.
Although her roots are in rigorous physical yoga practices, in recent years Dr. Hoffman has been moving towards teaching gentler practices that emphasize relaxation and balancing. As with her naturopathic patients, Dr. Hoffman meets yoga students where they’re at: modifying to accommodate areas of restriction and expanding from there.